We need to eliminate the sale of flavored tobacco products to reverse the teen vaping epidemic

Flavors that make tobacco products taste like blue raspberry, menthol and cotton candy are fueling a teen public health crisis. It’s urgent the Colorado Legislature approve HB1022-1064, which is a bill that will eliminate the sale of flavored tobacco products, before more kids get hooked. They have until May to do it.

Photo credit: Aleksandr Yu via Shutterstock
Alexandra Simon

Former Public Health Advocate, CoPIRG

Flavors hook kids to addictive nicotine products. 

While progress has been made to reduce youth smoking – high school cigarette usage dropped 15.8% between 2011 and 2020 – the next wave of nicotine products, including flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes, has proven effective at attracting and addicting our children.

The data is alarming, and it’s time for officials to take action.  

 

The New Nicotine Trap

E-cigarettes (or “vapes”) come in flavors like menthol, blue raspberry, cotton candy, banana nut bread, peach green tea and gummi bear. These products are designed to be appealing to kids and it’s working: U.S. high school students use e-cigarettes more than any other tobacco product and nearly 85% of high school users choose flavored e-cigs.

The data shows us teen vaping is a major problem which is getting worse, especially in Colorado:  

  • Nationally, 11.3% of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2020.
  • Recent data shows 25.9% Colorado high school students are using e-cigarettes –  more than twice the national average. 
  • Young people in 2020 who used e-cigarettes were seven times more likely to become a smoker one year later, compared with those who had never vaped.

With nearly 90,000 high school students already hooked in Colorado, every year tens of thousands more are at risk of nicotine addiction if we don’t act now. 

Photo credit: Aleksandr Yu via Shutterstock

Enticing Flavors Hide the Danger  

Partly because of the enticing flavors, many kids don’t even realize that the flavored tobacco products contain nicotine – one study found that 40% of teens didn’t realize they were using e-cigarettes that contained nicotine. Another survey showed that about 10 percent of U.S. youth believe e-cigarettes cause no harm, and 62 percent believe that occasional use only causes little or some harm.  

In fact, nicotine is a dangerous and addictive drug, and the Surgeon General states that “any e-cigarette use among young people is unsafe.” 

Let me repeat that – any use among our children is unsafe.

Vaping products often contain a highly concentrated form of nicotine called nicotine salts, which allow higher concentrations to be inhaled more easily and absorbed more quickly than regular nicotine.    

Nicotine changes the way connections are formed in developing brains, and can impair brain development, increase anxiety, and increase risk of future addiction to other substances. 

Nicotine can alter the way the way a developing brain functions for the rest of a teenagers life. That means kids who get hooked now will be impacted the rest of their lives.   

To make matters worse, studies have found traces of lead, nickel, tin, benzen, and dicetyl – chemicals linked to cancer and lung disease – in e-cigarette aerosol.

The impacts of flavored nicotine products will follow kids for the rest of their lives: studies show that young adults who vape are up to seven times more likely than non users to start smoking cigarettes. 

  

“It’s Part of the Culture to Have Your Flavor”

I reached out to my networks to find people I know who have been affected. One of my colleagues, Virginia Carter, shared her story about how pervasive and misunderstood flavored smoking products were among her and her friends when she was in school. 

As she explained recently in testimony to the Denver City Council, not only were these products easier to use than regular cigarettes, but also perceived as safer: 

“It was marketed as a safer tastier alternative to smoking. It was appealing because they came in a variety of flavors that we already knew and liked, and they didn’t leave your breath or your clothes smelling bad; they actually smelled fruity.”  

Virginia enjoyed blue raspberry popsicles as a kid (who didn’t?), and that childhood memory led her to use blue raspberry flavored e-cigarettes in high school. After learning more about the dangers of vaping, she was able to quit. But many of her friends continue to use flavored products:

“These friends don’t vape unflavored tobacco, they don’t smoke cigarettes, but they continue to vape the flavor that they have always used. It’s part of the culture to have your flavor.

E-cigarette available on the market, photo credit lindsayfox via Pixabay.

 

Where the FDA Fell Short

In 2018, the FDA took the first step towards regulation of flavored tobacco by removing flavored e-cigarettes off the market.  The new rule prohibited any cartridge-based e-cig from selling any flavors other than mint or menthol. The FDA recently updated their regulations to include disposable e-cigarettes, leaving three major loopholes open:

  1. Mint and menthol: mint and menthol products are wildly popular amongst youth and currently remain on the  market.
  2. Open tank system: this is a different system than the cartridge based system, and therefore fell outside the FDA regulation.  In an open tank system, the user has a refillable device, and they can order containers of the liquid “juice” to refill them.  
  3. Synthetic nicotine: Brands like Puff Bar have begun to use nicotine derived from synthetic (non-tobacco) sources, and thereby evading current FDA regulations which apply only to tobacco. The current proposed bill HB22-1064 in Colorado bans both flavored tobacco and synthetic nicotine products. 

 

Local Governments Take the Lead

Starting with Boulder County, local governments across Colorado have begun to take action. 

In 2019, parents were the driving force behind Boulder County’s decision to ban flavored nicotine products. Carbondale, in Garfield County, followed suit because public health officials were alarmed at the levels of teen vaping in the County. 

Aspen and Snowmass (both in Pitkin County), Glenwood Springs (Garfield County), and Edgewater (Jefferson County) have all since enacted full flavor bans – for a total of 6 cities in Colorado as of January 2022. 

While this progress is important, it is simply not enough and leaves far too many teens vulnerable to flavored products. The time for statewide action is now, and cannot come soon enough.     

 

Stepping Up for Public Health Statewide

On January 14th, Senators Priola and Fields and Representatives Mullica and Bacon introduced a bill, HB22-1064, that will ban flavored nicotine products. 

This is a comprehensive ban, including all flavors, all products, and all locations. It represents a critical and thorough solution to address teen vaping in Colorado.  

The bill also sets up a $10M fund for smoking cessation aimed at communities that have been disproportionately targeted by tobacco companies. In doing so, the legislation aims to ensure that at the same time we are removing these addictive products, we are also funding anti-cessation programs to help individuals quit nicotine all together. 

Other states are paving the way forward – Massachusetts and California have full flavor bans including menthol cigarettes. New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have flavor bans on e-cigarettes, and Maryland and Utah have some restrictions on flavors. 

Because Colorado’s legislation covers all flavors, all products, and all locations, it is one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation in the country. 

With more teens at risk of becoming addicted each day, we can’t wait for the FDA to act, and we can’t expect local governments to do it on their own.    

Every day, more teens start using flavored tobacco products, risking their health and gambling with a lifelong addiction. 

We need our  lawmakers to protect our public health. They need to pass HB22-1064.  

 

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Alexandra Simon

Former Public Health Advocate, CoPIRG

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